After nearly getting back to full strength during the international break, Liverpool is all but certain in need of a win to reclaim the top spot in the Premier League when they host Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday in a mouth-watering clash of top-three sides.
Though third in the table, Tottenham Hotspur (20-1-9) have essentially been reduced to spoilers since they are 15 points behind the table-topping Reds with eight matches to play. The Lilywhites, however, may have needed the international recess the most among the top six sides vying for top-four places, as they went winless in four league matches (0-1-3) while sweeping aside Borussia Dortmund to reach the Champions League quarterfinals.
All of that, however, matters little to Liverpool (23-7-1) as they try to fight off title-holders Manchester City over the final seven match days of the season. The Reds will likely be provisionally second by kickoff at Anfield, since City face relegation-threatened Fulham on Saturday and are expected to take all three points to go top of the table.
The break came at an opportune time for Liverpool, who should have everyone available save Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and even he is inching near a potential return during the run-in after playing for the Under-23 side. Manager Jurgen Klopp was most pleased right back Trent Alexander-Arnold and wing Xherdan Shaqiri were able to train with the full squad and at worst be among the final 18 selected for this match.
But the one player Klopp is counting on for a return to form is Mohamed Salah, who has gone seven matches without a goal yet remains in contention for the Golden Boot as he is one behind Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero.
“Oh, 100 percent of course he has regained freshness in that time, it’s clear,” Klopp said of the Egypt international at his Friday news conference. “The boys didn’t actually have time off, they just trained individually. It’s not the highest intensity and that helps for different reasons. Not only for Mo but for the others as well who weren’t involved on international duty. It’s all good.”
Salah has three goals in as many matches against Tottenham Hotspur since joining Liverpool and five in eight overall. He had a brace in last season’s corresponding fixture, which ended 2-2 after Harry Kane stole a point for the north London club with a penalty in the 95th minute.
While the goals have dried up for Salah, Sadio Mane stepped into the breech and responded with six goals in his last four contests. The Senegal international continued his fine form with a goal as a substitute in a friendly win over Mali.
Between the international break and having a match rescheduled due to the FA Cup, Spurs are playing their first match of any kind in three weeks. While the excitement builds as the new White Hart Lane is finally going to host the club for a match next month, keeper Hugo Lloris is pointing to this match as a chance to jump-start their run-in to retain a Champions League spot.
“We are still third and it’s up to us,” the France international and World Cup winner told the club’s official website. “It’s the same for the other teams involved. Okay, Liverpool and City look like they are going to fight for the title but behind them, it’s four teams challenging for two places,
“Liverpool are a fantastic team, even more at home so it’s going to be a big, big fight, a big battle and the guys will be ready to compete, then we will see what will happen. I think it’s the perfect game for us to bounce back.”
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino will watch the game from the directors’ box as he serves the last of his two-match ban for his conduct towards fourth official Mike Dean in Tottenham’s 2-1 loss to Burnley last month, and will be without two key components of his midfield engine. Eric Dier picked up a knock while representing England, and fellow midfielder Harry Winks is still recovering from a groin injury.
It continued a run of poor luck for Dier, who has made just nine league appearances for Spurs since December due to having his appendix removed and a bout of tonsillitis. Right back Serge Aurier will also miss out due to a hamstring injury suffered while playing for the Ivory Coast.
The good news for Spurs is their attack – led by the irrepressible Kane – should be at full strength with Dele Alli, Heung-Min Son and Christian Eriksen in support. Kane has scored a goal in five consecutive matches across all competitions after netting in both of England’s European qualifying wins during the break.
The Three Lions talisman has five goals in eight career matches against Liverpool, including three strikes in four matches at Anfield.
Liverpool are seeking their second league double over Tottenham in three seasons after recording a 2-1 win at Wembley in September. Georginio Wijnaldum and Roberto Firmino scored in a 15-minute span bridging the halves, and Liverpool survived a stoppage-time goal by Erik Lamela and controversy before the final whistle when referee Michael Oliver did not award Spurs a late penalty after Mane tripped Son in the box.
Tottenham are winless in their last eight trips to Anfield (0-3-5) in all competitions since Rafael Van der Vaart and Luka Modric fired them to a 2-0 victory in 2011. The Lilywhites are 2-8-16 at Liverpool in the Premier League era, with the other victory coming in 1993.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: LIVERPOOL 2, Tottenham Hotspur 1.
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(Fabinho photo courtesy Liverpool FC’s official Twitter account)